Book Review: The Thoughtful Dresser

Today I am pleased to bring you a review essay by Laura McLaws Helms, a photographer, blogger and fashion history graduate student at F.I.T. who previously reviewed Foale and Tuffin: The Sixties. A Decade in Fashion. Today, Helms will take a closer look at a popular title, The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter.

The Thoughtful Dresser, a new book by the British writer Linda Grant, seeks to uncover the importance that clothes have in our lives. From the outset Grant clearly defines herself as just a fan of fashion—“I am not a fashion writer just an amateur enthusiast… I think about clothes and fashion in two ways. With the attention of the average person who simply wants to know what next to wear… but also with the interest of a writer who is curious about all our human dimensions, our comedy and our tragedy…”[i] Known as a novelist, in this book Linda Grant tries to prove that fashion is not trivial by looking at it through a strictly non-academic lens and by attempting to humanize the study of fashion.

While the book is divided into chapters that address different themes—the act of shopping, shoes and how our clothes become our friends, for example—the themes are pretty loose, and are there to give form to the personal stories she includes. Most of the experiences and thoughts she details are her own; used to show how we create our identities through the clothes we choose to wear. Interwoven into the book is the story of a Holocaust survivor, Catherine Hill, who went on to open a major fashion boutique in Toronto. Grant uses Hill’s tale to show that fashion is an essential part of life, stating, “…it is in the pleasure that we take in clothes that we are at our most elementally human. Wearing clothes, the story of the human race begins.”[ii] In much the same way that she uses Hill’s life to prove fashion’s value, Grant as eagerly uses it as a way to justify her own love of shopping and beautiful things. Though she repeatedly says that she does not care if she is judged for these passions, Grants uses catastrophes, including WWII and 9/11, as examples of how fashion survives in the face of adversity and how it is essential for morale. These ideas are not new, though she does not refer to any earlier studies or books on the subject; the use of which would have benefited The Thoughtful Dresser immensely.

Grant states that she is “not attempting to offer a theory of fashion or an investigation of the academic thinking on the subject. I have only a passing interest in it because what I really care about is what I myself wear, and not so much what it all means.”[iii] Seeking to maintain her personal approach to the subject of dress, Grant disregards almost all prior work done in the field, with Barthes’ The Fashion System drawing most of her ire, and upholds Elizabeth Wilson’s 1985 book Adorned in Dreams for its precise dissection of fashion theory. Though Grant apparently has little time for theory, she does pepper her text with references to important events in fashion history, which is limited apparently to Dior, Chanel and Poiret.

When she began writing this book in 2007, Grant set up a blog, also called The Thoughtful Dresser, where she worked through some of her ideas on the subject of clothes. Though this book is supposedly all new material, the connection between the book and the blog can be clearly seen. While Grant is obviously a talented writer—this book is easy to read and engaging—much of it feels more like a collection of articles than a book. A former newspaper columnist, it seems as though she had trouble translating her ideas into the larger scale of a book. She repeats ideas over an over, and for emphasis makes large all-encompassing pronouncements about fashion and clothing, such as “We dress for our lifelong journey through time, the transformation of the self, a recognition that we are in thrall to the ticking clock.”[iv] Rather absolute, these statements can be quite jarring when you come across them in the middle of a discussion of the trends she wore as a teenager. Caroline Weber, the historian, found these, in her review in the New York Times Book Review, to be a mix of “just-folks aphorisms,” “the language of New Age self-discovery,’ and “glib platitudes.”[v] Weber also takes offense to Grant’s implication of “the reader in her own “lifelong journey” toward “identity””[vi] through her use of ‘you’ pronoun. Other reviewers also found fault with Grant—Zoë Heller, in the Sunday Times of London , calls out her “pose of Paris Hilton style complacency” and her lack of thought about those who are unable to afford the £300 Dolce & Gabbana heels she buys in a fit of lust.[vii]

The Thoughtful Dresser is definitely written more for a sometime follower of fashion, rather than for the fashion historian. While it is a quick and at times enjoyable read, its frustrations in many ways outweigh the good points. Grant’s wish to keep it personal at all costs means that many interesting ideas on the culture of fashion are sometimes backed up with little more than someone’s reminiscence of their mother. Nothing in the book has any academic validity, though I doubt she would care. Looking over public reviews on Amazon, the consensus is overwhelming positive—hopefully those who are attracted to this book because of her engaging writing style and personal approach will agree with her thesis on the importance of fashion and seek to learn more of the theory and history.

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.

Grant, Linda. The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003.


[i] Linda Grant, The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter (New York: Scribner, 2010), 5-6.[ii] Grant, 298. 

[iii] Grant, 130.

[iv] Grant, 120.

[v] Caroline Weber, “Shopaholic Confessions,” The New York Times, May 27, 2010.

[vi] Weber.

[vii] Zoë Heller, “The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant,” The Sunday Times, March 1, 2009.

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3 Comments

  • EmilyKennedy August 18, 2010 07.53 am

    Oooh, wow. Great review! I really needed to hear the bits about personal stories vs. academic validity. I had intended to purchase this book, but considering my thesis is due in eight short months, I know it’s not the time to get it.

    I really enjoy a good book review! I’m going to look through your Book Reviews tag as well now!

     
  • purpleshoes August 18, 2010 08.54 am

    Yeah, I was frustrated with how uncritically she approached fashion and gender, for all that I think it may well be a fun and lightweight read for someone who isn’t overly invested in questioning why precisely womanhood is considered irrevocably linked with precarious footwear. The cover is very attractive, though.

     
  • Danine Cozzens August 18, 2010 12.03 pm

    Great review, drawing the distinctions between fashion scholarship and writing about fashion nicely. As a fan of fine writing, I was hooked by this sentence on her blog: “an exquisite Italian woman in the kind of skinny jeans that are artfully folded around the ankle, requiring the centuries of visual acuity only granted to a country of people who can wear beige without looking like a geography teacher.” Thanks to your review, I’ll take Linda Grant’s opinions as her opinions, and not confuse them with research. Both opinions and research are good; knowing one from the other, even better.

     

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